Who are the donors taking on GMOs?

Samples at the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency laboratory. Photo by: Stephanie Miles / Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research / CC BY

This is part three in our series on the GMO debate. Read Part one: Are GMOs the key to global food security? and Part two: Understanding the continued opposition to GMOs

CANBERRA — Despite ongoing opposition from some activists to genetically modified organisms, a number of development donors are investigating and funding research of the technology as a means of addressing a range of development challenges. Feeding a growing population, improving nutrition and health, increasing yield, and responding to environmental challenges are among the reason donors give for funding GMO research.

Previously, we have explored the perspective of the scientific community as well as anti-GMO campaigners in the development sector to understanding the arguments both for and against GMOs.

The GMO Debate

What happens when we remove multinationals and corporate profit from the GMO debate?

In this five-part series, Devex looks at how perspectives of doing good through science versus corporate interests changes the outcome of the polarized GMO issue.

Part one: Are GMOs the key to global food security?

Part two: Understanding the continued opposition to GMOs

In part three of this series, we look at what role GMOs are playing in development assistance — and why they attract support. Public information remains scarce, but two donors have been particularly open about their efforts to use GMOs to help fight malnutrition and improve food security. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the most prominent donors in this debate. For more than a decade, it has been providing funding for innovative agricultural research, including hundreds of millions of dollars for GMO projects.

At the other end of the scale, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research is just entering the GMO space, but through a small pilot project they are hoping will lead to further investment and opportunities.

In between both stand donors such as the United States Agency for International Development, United Kingdom Department for International Development, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and others who have all tentatively begun funding a range of initiatives supporting the adoption of GMOs in the developing world.

Finding development’s GMO donors

The information available on which donors are working in the GMO space is diverse and scattered — donors are not always promoting work in this area because of a perceived negative response. While the Gates Foundation is open and transparent on funding through searchable databases such as the Grand Challenges Award Repository, other donors’ work on GMOs is more difficult to find.

But donor-backed GMO projects are slowly becoming more accessible.

GMO projects supported by DFID includes the funding of a project to fight banana bacterial wilt in Uganda. And through their UK Aid Direct program the have provided support for the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency — or RIPE — project which uses genetic engineering to enable plants to photosynthesize more efficiently and increase crop yields.

JICA has supported the the development of genetically modified soybean lines to be more tolerant to environmental stresses.

USAID, along with DFID, support Uganda’s banana wilt project and have also invested in a public-private partnership with DuPont Pioneer and the Government of Ethiopia in an effort to improve agricultural production using GMO seed. Their leadership team also shows strong interest in this space with the current USAID Chief Scientist Robert Bertram acting as a member of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board along with a former Rockefeller Foundation food security expert.

Their newly released Global Food Security Research Strategy confirms USAID will continue to support the introduction of GMOs for use in developing countries, noting that “USAID collaborates closely with USDA and local embassies to provide technical support and biosafety capacity development to partner-country legislators and regulatory officials.” This support has enabled a “growing number of Asian and African countries” to successfully pass legislation and introduce frameworks for safe testing and release of GMOs.

DFID and USAID are both listed as funders of GMO research in the Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas, developed by Biology Fortified. Other development-focused donors the database includes are the Rockefeller Foundation, European Commission and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, among a range of national agriculture, conservation, and scientific institutes as well as corporates with an interest in GMOs.

Regardless of the information — or lack of information — accessible, understanding why both big and small donors fund GMO research is important in understanding its future in development and food security.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the most prominent donor organizations in the GMO debate, with both names behind the organization having made public calls for GMOs to be considered part of food security solutions — particularly in Africa.

“The Europeans have decided they don’t want to use it [GMOs], most of them, which is fine.” Bill Gates told the Wall Street Journal in 2016. “They are not facing malnutrition and starvation. If they want to pay a premium for food of a kind it’s not a huge deal. The U.S., China and Brazil are using these things and if you want farmers in Africa to improve nutrition and be competitive on the world market — as long as the right safety things are done — that’s really beneficial. It’s kind of the second round of the Green Revolution.”

“We think you have to have both types of seeds — natural seeds and also GMOs,” Melinda Gates explained to a Brussels audience in 2017. “But we think ultimately it is up to the Africans to decide. The seeds have to be adapted to their climate, they have to grow them in test labs — which they are doing — and in test beds, but they ultimately have to decide what is right for their country and their market.”

Through the Gates Foundation, they are supporting a range of projects investigating the use of GMOs to solve global nutrition challenges as well as regional specific issues.

An analysis of funding data contained in the Grand Challenges Award Repository — funding for innovative ideas that aim to solve key global health and development problems — demonstrates that GMO projects have been a priority area of agricultural funding since 2005. Projects using GMO technology to improve nutrition of rice and cassava were among the first Grand Challenge investments — a total of $22.5 million was invested in these two projects alone. The highest single Grand Challenge project funded by the Gates Foundation, meanwhile, was the Nutritionally Enhanced Sorghum for the Arid and Semi-Arid Tropical Areas of Africa — $20.8 million awarded to Africa Harvest in 2005 which funded the creation of the African Bio-­fortified Sorghum Project.

Today, many of the early investments are reaching market stage — including Vitamin A-enriched bananas developed by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, a $4 million and eight year Gates investment that began in 2005.

And funding of new projects utilizing GMOs continues today.

The RIPE project, also supported by DFID, began in 2012, with a $25 million grant from the Gates Foundation — and last year they continued their support contributing to a $45 million and five year reinvestment.

Gina Ivey, head of global policy and advocacy for agricultural development with the Gates Foundation, told Devex that the investment in GMOs was one part of their investment in innovative technology to support agriculture and was an important part of their strategy to enable choice.

“We believe innovation has a role in the efforts to boost food security and build resilience to climate change, and that the millions of smallholder farmers who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods should be able to choose from a full-range of technologies what is best for them,” she said. “Farmers in the poorest parts of the world face tremendous challenges related to unproductive soil, plant diseases, pests, and drought. These challenges are increasingly difficult to overcome because of the changing climate, and they prevent many farmers from growing enough food to feed and provide for their families.

“We fund a range of different technologies, including conventional breeding and modern biotechnology, so farmers have the option to choose the solution that works best for them.”

Criticism directed at GMOs surround concerns for environmental and human costs that may be associated with such genetic engineering — with a focus directed towards corporations such as Monsanto and DuPont profiting from GMO seeds including cotton, rice, and soybeans that have been designed to improve yield, grow in harsh environments, and be pesticide resistant.

But Ivey believes scientific evidence does not support concerns over health and environmental dangers.

“The 2016 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Genetically Engineered Crops Study brought together an expert committee to systematically review all evidence accumulated over the last two decades and is viewed as the most comprehensive overview of the potential benefits and risks of GM crops to date,” she said “That report found that there are no sustained risks to human or environmental health from GM crops.”

The report, Ivey explained, found that the use of GM technology had generally decreased the amount of insecticides used throughout the world, benefiting the wider environment, while yields increased.

“It has also contributed to a reduction in crop losses for farmers all around the world, and is benefiting farmers’ incomes,” she said. “When Bt maize was first adopted in the Philippines, yields increased 34 percent while net farmer incomes doubled.” Bt maize was first permitted to be grown in the Philippines in 2002, and by 2016 approximately 65 percent of the total yellow corn of the country was GM, supporting the income of 400,000 farming families.

And in the foreseeable future, GMOs will continue to be an important part of agricultural development investments for the Gates Foundation — which seeks to make smallholder crops and livestock more sustainable and productive, improve poor families’ nutrition, and support women farmers, according to Ivey.

“Our strategy is focused on empowering smallholder farmers with the knowledge, tools, and inputs to improve their livelihoods and lift themselves and their families out of poverty,” Ivey said.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research

While the Gates Foundation has invested tens of millions of dollars over more than a decade in supporting GMO research, other donors are taking a smaller and tentative approach. The Australian government’s ACIAR is one such smaller donor that has been particularly open about its efforts in the field.

Within the Australian Aid program, the role of ACIAR is to invest in applied research, which can improve agricultural productivity, sustainability, and food system resilience in developing countries. Geographically, their core region of interest is the Indo-Pacific region, and they work with countries in this region through bilateral and multilateral research partnerships.

While ACIAR is not new to GMO funding, having funded a project to genetically engineer pineapples between 2000 and 2004, funding GMO research is not a high priority of ACIAR’s agenda. Rather, it is to help countries to adapt to changing environmental conditions and support nutrition needs. But in doing so, it is slowly stepping into this arena with an initial project in Bangladesh.

“Bangladesh needs a lot more legumes,” Andrew Campbell, chief executive officer of ACIAR, explained to Devex. “They have wheat and rice and problems with flooding, rising sea levels and salinization. But like a lot of countries, they are now getting rising obesity levels and they need a lot more legumes back in their cropping systems to improve human diets, but also to get nitrogen fixation in their agricultural soil. But farmers have stopped growing chickpeas because of insect pests.”

Within Bangladesh, ACIAR is working with the government on a scoping a project that is expected to finish in the second half of 2018. The project will help support the import genetically modified chickpeas from Australia — specifically Bt chickpeas which were developed by CSIRO to provide protection against insect pests such as pod borer caterpillars.

“Bangladesh is having huge losses due to insect pests and the only answer at the moment is to nuke them with bloody chemicals,” Campbell said. “[Farmers] often don’t have sufficient capital for the chemicals, but when they do, they often overuse the chemicals which causes other problems in getting into the water and more.

“We think there are very big gains to be had — similar as we have seen in the Australian cotton industry — if these guys could introduce Bt chickpea.” Genetically modified cotton varieties were introduced to Australia in 1996 as a response to cotton pests. In the past 22 years, GM varieties have become the standard — now accounting for 100 percent of cotton grown in Australia and an industry with an annual export value of $1.5 billion Australian dollars ($1.2 billion).

For ACIAR, GMO may be an important solution not just to nutrition needs but to helping reduce environmental impacts from poor pesticide management techniques. But for now, the scoping project is focused purely on getting the paperwork and regulatory framework in order to enable the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute to import GMO seed for testing and use.

“A lot of developing countries are still twitchy about this stuff and don’t have all the regulatory processes in place,” Campbell said. “So this project is a small project — a couple hundred grands worth out of our portfolio of $140 million — so that gives an idea of the scale of GM within our portfolio.”

However, small donors such as ACIAR, said Campbell, can play a key role in supporting governments that are introducing GMO regulations. By supporting developing countries with their regulatory frameworks and ensuring research meets international standards, possible negative environmental or health impacts can be prevented. And with technology advancing rapidly, Campbell said it is important to focus on this work as a priority.

“Gene editing techniques are improving all the time,” he said. “A process that used to take 10 years probably won’t take 10 years in the future. With gene sequencing machines — it wasn’t long ago that there were only two or three in the world and they used to cost squillions of dollars. I was in a lab in Nairobi recently that had four of them. They will continue to become more accessible and down the track, it will be within the realms of any of the partners we deal with to do their own genetic work to tackle their own problems.”

“And that is why it is extremely important for us to pioneer what an appropriate regulatory regime looks like and what the safety risk management looks like so that no one does put a ‘Frankenfood’ into the system.”

Not all GMO is the same

Campbell is aware of the resistance to GMOs and says many of the arguments are warranted through evidence of ‘superweeds’ that have developed resistance to pesticides including Roundup. 2,4-D resistant seeds have been introduced by Dow AgroSciences to build on Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready system, with concerns of the chemicals included with 2,4-D being listed as a chemical that was contained in Agent Orange.

“And that is not a benign chemical,” he said. “As weeds develop resistance, they are moving to less benign chemicals where they should be looking at integrated pest management.”

Monsanto have implemented a “next level weed control” and the major GMO companies are working together on solutions as members of a Herbicide Resistance Action Committee.

Beyond concerns of the chemicals being used, Campbell also believes using GMOs as a “magic bullet” to improve diets, including improving Vitamin A intake through foods such as golden rice — are a waste of resources. “It is an extremely complex way of getting more Vitamin A into a diet when you can simply grow more vegetables and eat a healthier diet.”

But he does consider GMOs an important option in food security, and believes it is important to differentiate between GMO products developed for sale by the private sector and GMO developed for public good, which targets regional-specific issues such as diseased papaya in Hawaii and can support local culture and economies.

Public good GMOs should ensure intellectual property of seeds is in the public domain, Campbell said, and this will enable multiple suppliers of seed and ensure they cost no more than any other seeds.

“My view is that not all GM is the same,” he said. “The Bt type GM — which provides resistance to a particular bug or disease — is substantially better than going around and trying to spray everything. But producing chemical-resistant lines, just so you can continue to use the herbicide you happen to sell, I think that is a much more problematic use of GM.”

Importantly, it differentiates the output of this research to that of corporations who see regional-specific agricultural challenge as less profitable — with the time, resources, and money that goes into GMO research, corporations are unlikely to see big profit from regional disease and pest issues, particularly in developing countries.

And Campbell believes it is these regional issues donors should be targeting, to specifically separate themselves from the potential influence of corporations.  

“We’ll always take a very targeted and calibrated approach to GM,” he said. “We’re not going to be doing big blanket recommendations — it will be country by country. But the benefits of this, if this small project achieves its objectives, will mean that we will be in a position to go into a new partnership with Bangladesh, which would be a much bigger five-year, multimillion dollar research program to make sure that the Bt chickpea works in their environment and grows in their conditions with a robust supply of seed.”

“And then eventually, the idea is that Bangladesh would have new strains of locally adapted, high yielding, pod-borer resistant chickpea cultivars, and they could confidently put chickpeas back in their cropping rotation without having to nuke them with chemicals and get some legumes back into their systems to improve soil as well as human diet.”

Turning to politics

In part four of our series, Devex will continue our exploration of the role of GMOs in food security with a political focus. We will investigate governments who are now looking at GMOs in response to local agricultural issues and ask whether “public good” GMOs are changing political perspectives.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.